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Opinion: For how long, health journalists will continue to practise armchair journalism?

We often talk about unethical practices in the medical world but it would be impossible to cleanse the inept and corrupt system without examining its enablers. In this sense, a digital, cash-sparse economy would help and despite widespread criticism of the government move, I think it is necessary pain that we must go through and we should probably go even further. But we have already written about the effect of demonetisation on our healthcare before. Today, I would like to discuss some of the other enablers — for example, the role of the media.

Dr Kamal Mahawar
Dr Kamal Mahawar

I came across a medical news item on the second page of a prominent newspaper last week. The article was about a research from a private hospital in India, published in an average quality journal on a topic, very important no doubt to those in the field, but in my opinion, of little importance to the general public and the wider healthcare in India. I often moan about the lack of quality research emanating from India and the absence of systems to encourage and enable a thriving research culture. I am hence not going to criticise any help we can get to push the agenda of indigenous research.

But the use of media, and it cannot happen without media being complicit in it, for promotional purposes lies at the heart of the medical ethics in India and cannot hence be allowed to continue. The media should know that by promoting a specific hospital and its two or three doctors, it has not done any service to Indian healthcare and actually done a disservice to the honest professionals working in hospitals without PR machinery. This is not journalism and ultimately coaxes even the other doctors to follow the same path, as they will otherwise have no patients.

There is no shortage of real issues to talk about for journalists in the healthcare sector in India. There are problems with infrastructure of medical and nursing education, post-graduate training, primary healthcare, quality of public sector facilities, inadequate government funding, lack of autonomy to government institutes for generating their own revenue, over-concentration of facilities in big cities, lack of services in vast parts of the country, absence of an effective public ambulance service and transport system to facilitate it, etc etc. I could go on forever.

However, talking about these issues will need the journalists to spend time understanding them, visiting these hospitals, seeing how patients are getting treated, and learning the issues doctors face on a daily basis in India. This will need time and effort. This cannot be done sitting on your laptop while the doctors send you stuff they want you to write about. The real journalism that actually talks about something important will take weeks to produce an article. It will not be possible to patch together a last-minute piece with quotes from the well-off doctors in big private hospitals who can afford PR.

The media needs to rise to the challenge when it comes to the issues affecting Indian healthcare. There is no point in simply highlighting the issues of corruption in medicine without paying any attention to its own role in propagating the culture. Yes, we should highlight research and innovation, especially that comes from India and if it is a true progress, but such research should be meaningful to the larger issues our healthcare faces. The wider public is not bothered about a niche research in a very narrow area of science, nor should they be. Repackaging published advanced scientific research with quotes from rich and the famous doctors, probably under pressure from the hospital PR teams; and highlighting issues without examining the underlying drivers and enablers of correction will not lead to an improved healthcare for our people.

I know these are strong words aimed at some very powerful people in the society but I am confident it will provide some food for thought to the serious health journalists out there looking to make a real name and difference.

Following his graduation from Calcutta Medical College and post graduation from Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh, Dr Kamal Mahawar is now a Consultant General and Bariatric Surgeon with Sunderland Royal Hospital in the United Kingdom. He is also an Associate Clinical Lecturer with Newcastle University and editor of renowned scientific journals. His recent book ‘The Ethical Doctor’ published by Harper Collins India examines some of the serious issues affecting Indian healthcare.

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